By Greg Jaffe, Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 12, 2009
The U.S. ambassador in Kabul sent two classified cables to Washington in the past week expressing deep concerns about sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan until President Hamid Karzai's government demonstrates that it is willing to tackle the corruption and mismanagement that has fueled the Taliban's rise, senior U.S. officials said.
Karl W. Eikenberry's memos, sent as President Obama enters the final stages of his deliberations over a new Afghanistan strategy, illustrated both the difficulty of the decision and the deepening divisions within the administration's national security team. After a top-level meeting on the issue Wednesday afternoon -- Obama's eighth since early last month -- the White House issued a statement that appeared to reflect Eikenberry's concerns.
"The President believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open-ended," the statement said. "After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time."
On the eve of his nine-day trip to Asia, Obama was given a series of options laid out by military planners with differing numbers of new U.S. deployments, ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 troops. None of the scenarios calls for scaling back the U.S. presence in Afghanistan or delaying the dispatch of additional troops.
But Eikenberry's last-minute interventions have highlighted the nagging undercurrent of the policy discussion: the U.S. dependence on a partnership with a Karzai government whose incompetence and corruption is a universal concern within the administration. After months of political upheaval, in the wake of widespread fraud during the August presidential election, Karzai was installed last week for a second five-year term.
In addition to placing the Karzai problem prominently on the table, the cables from Eikenberry, a retired four-star general who in 2006-2007 commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan, have rankled his former colleagues in the Pentagon -- as well as Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, defense officials said. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has stated that without the deployment of an additional tens of thousands of troops within the next year, the mission there "will likely result in failure."
Eikenberry retired from the military in April as a senior general in NATO and was sworn in as ambassador the next day. His position as a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is likely to give added weight to his concerns about sending more troops and fan growing doubts about U.S. prospects in Afghanistan among an increasingly pessimistic public and polarized Congress.
Although Eikenberry's extensive military experience and previous command in Afghanistan were the key reasons Obama chose him for the top diplomatic job there, the former general had been reluctant as ambassador to weigh in on military issues. Some officials who favor an increase in troops said they were surprised by the last-minute nature of his strongly worded cables.
In these and other communications with Washington, Eikenberry has expressed deep reservations about Karzai's erratic behavior and corruption within his government, said U.S. officials familiar with the cables. Since Karzai was officially declared reelected last week, U.S. diplomats have seen little sign that the Afghan president plans to address the problems they have raised repeatedly with him.
U.S. officials were particularly irritated by a interview this week in which a defiant Karzai said that the West has little interest in Afghanistan and that its troops are there only for self-serving reasons.
"The West is not here primarily for the sake of Afghanistan," Karzai told PBS's "The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" program. "It is here to fight terrorism. The United States and its allies came to Afghanistan after September 11. Afghanistan was troubled like hell before that, too. Nobody bothered about us."
Karzai expressed indifference when asked about the withdrawal of most of the hundreds of U.N. employees from Afghanistan after a bombing late last month in Kabul. The blast killed five foreign U.N. officials.
"They may or may not return," he said. "I don't think Afghanistan will notice it."
Eikenberry also has expressed frustration with the relative paucity of funds set aside for spending on development and reconstruction this year in Afghanistan, a country wrecked by three decades of war. Earlier this summer, he asked for $2.5 billion in nonmilitary spending for 2010, a 60 percent increase over what Obama had requested from Congress, but the request has languished even as the administration has debated spending billions of dollars on new troops.
The ambassador also has worried that sending tens of thousands of additional American troops would increase the Afghan government's dependence on U.S. support at a time when its own security forces should be taking on more responsibility for fighting. Before serving as the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Eikenberry was in charge of the Afghan army training program.
Each of the four options that were presented to Obama on Wednesday were accompanied by troop figures and the estimated annual costs of the additional deployments, roughly calculated as $1 billion per thousand troops. All would draw the United States deeper into the war at a time of economic hardship and rising fiscal concerns at home.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have backed a major increase in U.S. forces to drive the Taliban from populated areas and provide Afghan security forces and the government the space to snuff out corruption and undertake development projects. They have argued that only a large-scale counterinsurgency effort can produce a strong Afghan government capable of preventing the country from once again become an al-Qaeda haven.
Those views have been balanced in internal deliberations by the hard skepticism of other Obama advisers, led by Vice President Biden. They have argued for a more narrow counterterrorism strategy that would not significantly expand the U.S. combat presence.
The most ambitious option Obama received Wednesday calls for 40,000 additional U.S. troops, as outlined by McChrystal in his stark assessment of the war filed in late August.
Military planners put the additional annual cost of McChrystal's recommendation at $33 billion, although White House officials say the number is probably closer to $50 billion. The extra troops would allow U.S. forces to attempt to take back and hold several Taliban havens in the southern and eastern regions of Afghanistan.
One compromise option put forward by the Pentagon, with the backing of Gates, would deploy an additional 30,000 to 35,000 U.S. troops -- fewer than McChrystal's optimal number to carry out his strategy -- and rely on NATO allies to make up the 5,000- to 10,000-troop difference. The third option, known by military planners as "the hybrid," would send 20,000 additional U.S. troops to shore up security in 10 to 12 major population areas. In the rest of the country, the military would adopt a counterterrorism strategy targeting forces allied with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, primarily in the north and east, with fighter jets, Predator drones and Special Operations troops that leave a light U.S. footprint on the ground. The military puts the annual cost of that option at $22 billion.
The most modest option calls for deploying an additional 10,000 to 15,000 troops. While under consideration at the White House, the proposal holds little merit for military planners because, after building bases to accommodate 10,000 or so additional soldiers and Marines, the marginal cost of adding troops beyond that figure would rise only slightly.